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A mass for a fascist: a troubling history haunts modern Croatia

Far-right ideologies grow ever more comfortable in the Croatian mainstream, encouraged by a lack of serious condemnation of their activities.

"Worshippers"at a memorial service for Ante Pavelic in Zagreb, Croatia. Photo by Una Hajdari.The persistent beating of rain on a particularly gloomy winter evening in Zagreb did not stop a crowd of devout churchgoers from gathering in front of the Basilica of the Heart of Jesus in the center of the Croatian capital. For twenty years, this towering Jesuit church has been the setting for an annual mass held on the anniversary of the death of Ante Pavelic, the head of one of the most murderous regimes in Europe during the Second World War.

The scene unraveling in front of the church had a distinctly conspiratorial feel to it. While the men and occasional woman huddled together, speaking in hushed tones, a group of policemen across the street watch on patiently. The mass has attracted protesters in the past years and is often covered by local media outlets, even though the congregation and the Jesuit order itself represent a minority within the wider Croatian population.

Openly “worshipping” Pavelic is not commonplace in modern Croatian society, and the use of paraphernalia and symbols associating to the Independent State of Croatia (cro. NDH), the official name of the WWII Nazi puppet state that he headed, is also punishable by law. This did not stop some of the men seen later sitting in the front pews of the church from sporting t-shirts bearing the recognizable letter “U”, the emblem of the fiercely nationalist Ustasa organization formed by Pavelic, and others gathered in front of the church from exchanging calendars depicting the image of Pavelic and a map of Greater Croatia.

Drazen Keleminec also joined the group gathered in front of the church. The leader of the marginal yet publicity-attracting Autochthonous Croatian Party of Rights (cro. A-HSP), a socially conservative, far right party, made headlines in September when he organized the public burning of a critical Croatian newspaper known for scrutinizing right-wing movements in the country. On this particular evening, Keleminec seemed like he felt at home amongst the crowd as he enthusiastically greeted young admirers who approached him in front of the Basilica.

While no high-ranking public officials were seen at this event, it is undeniable that masses like this one – similar ones dedicated to Pavelic have been held in other Croatian towns – reflect a silent acceptance of strong right-wing tendencies present in post-war independent Croatia.

A bloody conflict in the early 90s that marked the break from Croatia’s socialist twentieth-century history and the accompanying rise of strong nationalist sentiments has fuelled a resurgence of appreciation for figures like Pavelic and others, such as Alojzije Stepinac, the cardinal that served as the Archbishop of Zagreb during WWII. Both were castigated by the Yugoslav socialist regime after the Second World War, and both figures have been reinstated as symbols of national pride in the period following the 90s. Stepinac, unlike Pavelic, has even seen public acceptance by the mainstream Catholic Church leadership in Croatia, who have sought his canonization from the Vatican.

“The people who visit these masses or similar events are definitely not part of the mainstream, in the classical sense,” says historian Dragan Markovina. “The problem lies in the fact that the mainstream finds no fault with it. Even when they do react to such events, it occurs under pressure and they utter a couple of courteous sentences while acknowledging the right of anyone to organize memorial masses for the deceased.”

“The people who organize these masses do not do so without the knowledge, and possibly even the blessing, of the greater part of the Catholic church and the Church has never distanced itself from these groups,” says Markovina. “The more mainstream centre-right movements in the country, on the other hand, see these groups and their positive opinions of the NDH and Pavelic as a vehicle for their own survival on the scene, helping them legitimize their right-leaning political visions for the future.”

Croatia’s political playing field has been dominated by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (cro. HDZ), whose founder Franjo Tudjman was the figurehead of the movement seeking independence from the crumbling Yugoslav federation in the early 90s and the first president of the independent nation that followed.

Clergy deliver a mass to remember Ante Pavelic. Photo by Una Hajdari.Their domination of the political scene in the country is the result of a carefully crafted approach, conceived by Tudjman, which includes acknowledging the existence of right-wing groups just enough to keep them satisfied and to ensure a loyal voting base, all the while making sure to keep them at bay so as not to risk the legitimacy of an independent Croatia in a European and international scene that generally frowns upon open shows of support for neo-fascist tendencies.

This fragile balance is often disrupted on anniversaries such as this one or on dates considered to be of historical importance for the formation of the Croatian nation. The anniversary of the largest military campaign during the conflict in the 90s, Operation Storm (cro. Oluja), that takes place in early August, has often been the setting for a general increase in right-wing rhetoric across the country. Seen as a strategic victory for the fledgling Croatian state at the time, the military campaign was mainly fought against rebel formations of the Serbian minority in Croatia along the entire western and southwestern territories that later marked the border of the new Croatian state. This anniversary has been acknowledged by every leader and party in power since then, even though they have rarely criticized the war crimes that took place and the nationalist free-for-all that usually accompanies these events.

Ethnic minorities, such as the Croatian Serb minority that currently form about 4.5 percent of the population, are often seen as a threat to the domination of policies favoring the Croat majority in the country. Here too, Pavelic serves as “inspiration” for nationalists – his NDH is thought to have sent 80,000 Croatian Serbs as well as Jews, Roma, Communists and other enemies of state to their death in the Jasenovac concentration camp, thought to be one of the deadliest and most brutal camps in the region during World War II. The newspaper whose public burning Keleminec participated in is published by the Serbian National Council, the political body of the Croatian Serb minority, and they are seen by the right-wing as spreading lies at the expense of “Croatian national interests” by criticizing the right-wing and their intolerance towards minorities.

These tendencies, while strongly rooted in the past, show no sign of abating. Another reference to Pavelic-era Croatian history that has become “popularized” by the right wing is the use of the chant “Ready for the Home(land)” or “Za dom spremni”, which was the Croatian alternative to “Sieg Heil”.

As recently as this summer, a dispute over a plaque bearing this chant in the vicinity of the memorial site dedicated to the Jasenovac concentration camp threatened to bring down the ruling government coalition, with HDZ and other right-leaning parties refusing to openly condemn the existence of the plaque and its placement on a building close to the former concentration camp. Representatives of the Jewish and Serbian minority communities have refused to participate in the official commemoration for the victims of the camp, citing the government’s tolerance of fascist ideologies as an affront to the victims of the camp.

“There is no doubt that the dominant majority of HDZ and their voters and their ideological base is deeply nationalist and revisionist,” purports Markovina, who claims that any time HDZ has had to “put a different face forward, they did so when facing criticism from the rest of Europe or from domestic adversaries.”

According to him, political movements that will serve as serious challengers to the domination of the right-leaning HDZ and their acceptance of right-wing groups have yet to appear. “There are very few figures in the Croatian liberal mainstream who have shown to be committed anti-nationalists and anti-revisionists. HDZ’s main opponents on the political scene have always cowered from taking on the nationalist sentiments in the country, for fear of being labeled ‘unpatriotic’.”

This story was enabled by "Reporters in the Field", a program by the Robert Bosch Foundation hosted together with the media NGO n-ost.

About the author

Una Hajdari is a journalist based between Prishtina, Belgrade and Zagreb, reporting mainly for English and German-language outlets. She covers interethnic tensions, nationalism and the right-wing in the western Balkan area and is one of the monitors for Reporters without Borders in the region.

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